Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Slaying Blunderboer: Cross-Dressed Heroes, National Identities, and Wartime Pantomime

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Slaying Blunderboer: Cross-Dressed Heroes, National Identities, and Wartime Pantomime

Article excerpt

Invited to reflect on the subject of war and the fairy tale for a panel at the 20 1 1 American Folklore Association meeting, my mind went immediately to a phenomenon 1 noticed a few years ago, when research on British pantomime led me to peruse the December to January issues of The Sketch at the National Library of Scotland. Established in 1893, The Sketch: AJournal of Art and Actuality was one of three popular pictorial periodicals operated by the Illustrated London News Company. Editor C. K. Shorter sought to differentiate The Sketch from its parent publication (The Illustrated London News) by defining its audience as both youthful (in spirit if nothing else) and interested in news and the latest trends in the arts, fashion, and high society (Law 577). One matter of perceived interest to The Sketch's readership was pantomime, that ubiquitous and highly profitable form of family entertainment that has dominated stages across Great Britain in the weeks leading up to and following Christmas from the nineteenth century to the present day.

In the Covent Garden Theatre Museum's largely unsorted clippings files (simply labeled "Pantomime," "Dames," "Principal Boys," etc.) I discovered that a large number of the pantomime-related clippings were from The Sketch. In addition to a Christmas supplement, this periodical's December and January numbers typically included copious pantomime-related images: photographs of pantomime players, pantomime-related cartoons and caricatures, engravings depicting pantomime set designs, costumes, and audiences, and so on. But when sifting through relevant issues chronologically at the National Library of Scotland, I discovered that in 1899 - with military conflict looming in South Africa - the coverage of Christmas pantomime in The Sketch had a precipitous decline. In some sense the English seasonal obsession with cross-dressed fairy-tale heroes, spectacular processions of nursery rhyme characters, elaborate stage mechanics, and the like must have felt distasteful to a readership anxious about the prospect of a second Boer War. But although The Sketch may have temporarily diluted its coverage of the pantomime season, the war did in feet became part of the fabric of this performance tradition. For centuries that tradition has been characterized by topical references and localized humor, disturbing received ideas about Victorian uses of the fairy-tale genre, as 1 have suggested elsewhere (see my "Unruly Tales" and "Fairy Gold"). In this essay 1 turn to a wartime pantomime production of "Jack and the Beanstalk" to suggest that fairy-tale panto actually served as a remarkably rich medium for reflection on Britain's military and imperial positioning at the fin de siècle. And positioned at the intersection of fairy tale and war we find a cross-dressed figure standing boldly with hand on hip: in this case, one of the most important roles in any late Victorian pantomime, the principal boy.

The cross-dressed part of the principal boy was a staple and beloved role in Victorian and Edwardian pantomime performance, and it cast a woman in the role of hero and male romantic lead. Dressed in a costume that typically accentuated her waistline and most especially her legs, striding confidently across the stage and invoking what Peter Holland calls a "set of gestural devices" that parody "manly postures," the actress playing the principal boy was - along with the man playing the Dame - generally one of the performance's two headline players. While Holland deems the relationship between principal boy and principal girl "asexual" (199), I have argued that close reading of nineteenth-century scripts and commentaries indicates that the dynamic between the two romantic leads in late Victorian pantomime is not nearly as chaste as recent commentators have suggested. Principal and secondary boys and girls flirt, embrace, kiss, and engage in banter heavy with double entendres, and commentators appear to be well aware of this flirtation between players and between players and the audience (see Schacker, "Fairy Gold" 166-69). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.